What makes a great golf club?
How did Augusta National become so revered and why is it the gold standard?
Some might say the design and condition of the course has brought the project to the forefront. Others contend the influence of Bob Jones did it; while there is a faction who will declare the finery is a culmination of history, affluence of the membership, their annual tournament and exclusivity.
But Augusta National isn’t the only highly regarded venue.
Royal County Down in Ireland, built in 1889, is famous. Muirfield in Scotland is home of The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, first organized in 1744.
In the United States, Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey wears a crown of exclusivity and one of the most demanding layouts.
Each has a claim to the title “one of the finest tests of golf in the world”. Each has a lengthy history and each has an affluent membership but is that all there is to it?
Closer to home we are proud of our own great venues – Summit, St. Charles, Shaughnessy, Toronto, Mississaugua, Hamilton, Royal Montreal and Toronto Ladies, plus many more.
Each has a fine course, a strong membership, affluence and history.
However, there are newer clubs that have sprouted up over the past few years that are also great venues that would be included in the grand theme if only they had another 75 years of history.
The National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont., was born from a dream envisioned by Gil Blechman, Harvey Kalef and Irv Hennick, who wanted a U.S. Open-style course.
They aligned themselves with course architects, George and Tom Fazio. In 1975, their goals were realized when the new course opened with well known PGA Tour champion Al Balding as the head professional.
A club isn’t great because of a grand design on a special piece of property.
A club is great because of the people who are members and staff. The National Golf Club would become a collection of members willing to share camaraderie, friendship and an interest in an atmosphere that encouraged each of them to aim to play golf in the purest sense with no distractions.
It was to be a players’ club.
What does being a players’ club mean?
The answer to that came during the eulogy of the club’s touring professional, Craig Marseilles, who passed away recently. Delivered by two long-time members and friends of Craig, Bill Hutchison and Don Positano, the message contained not only recollections of playing golf, but deep thoughts of respect and admiration.
One would automatically think that looking back on a relationship founded on time spent at the club that the memories would center on that aspect, but they didn’t.
Instead there was an enormous display of love for their lost friend and a deep reflection of the admiration they had for his playing skills. It is a relationship based on being a player of golf, a profound respect.
Sharing the thrill of sinking difficult putts, shooting a low score in trying weather or winning a tough, well-fought match brings with it a level of communication best known to people who play golf for the love of simply playing it.
The men had a bond built over time based on spending time together in a unique atmosphere. It is an atmosphere not recognized by every golfer but it is recognized by a “player.”
Small factions of feelings like this exist at most clubs among their better players but at the National it is the very fabric of the entire membership.
Even though every different handicap level can be found, each individual member has been taught to think like a player, a golfer. They understand the game from the perspective of respect for the rules, the traditions, the dignity one must allow a fellow competitor, the history and most of all, the support required from every member to sustain the objective of helping develop aspiring players.
Everything at the National is focused on providing the best atmosphere in which to play golf. They have a fine course, the best practice area with the best balls. They have a strong teaching staff, excellent custom club fitting and well-organized events.
All of this has come about from the original dream of the owners and expanded by Balding, but one remaining actor played a significant role – Ben Kern from 1976 to 1995.
He researched the history of long time reputable clubs and organized training programs for his board of directors, teaching manuals for employees, developed merchandising styles, then employed and empowered his staff.
The result was that traditions became engrained and members were shown not only to enjoy their club, but how to enjoy it, which eventually led to a meaningful respect both for the game and each other.
Under the watchful eyes of their current head professional, Adam Brown, traditions are honoured with dignity and continue to develop.
Some customs are significant and some are less so, but cumulatively, they create a distinction in the thread that ties the reputation of the course to the folklore that identifies the club.
It takes effort, sacrifice and willingness to continue building the atmosphere of a players’ club, which makes it distinct and great.
While some might ask, “What are those traditions and how do you know if you are following them or not”?
The answer is, you don’t!
Only those who have them engrained in their souls know the difference.
At the National no ritual, no practice nor tradition between members is more evident and so humbling than the grip of compassion and embrace of the feeling one player has for another.
The National is a player’s club.